On the Road for 75 Years

January 1968, Bookmobile Va. Phillips and Buddy Harmon.

On March 24, 1947, Snohomish County Library rolled out its newest library, a beautiful two-tone green facility with modern touches — fluorescent lights, thermostat heating, and capacity for 2200 books. Designed to reach the greatest number of people at minimal cost, this newest library was a bookmobile, and it was hitting the road to White Horse, Warm Beach, Gold Bar, Lake Ballinger, and beyond. Unlike other libraries, the shelves in this one tilted at 15 degrees, a prudent choice for a library that sits on a ton and a half cab-over-engine chassis.

On a timetable “as rigid as that of a transit bus,” driver Archold Jameson and librarian Noelle Corbin traversed 13,000 miles in their first year, making as many as 15 stops a day at schools, grocery stores, service stations, and community centers. The anticipated bookmobile visits became social gatherings with gossiping over coffee, children pretending to drive the truck, and Corbin answering requests for a wide variety of materials from black widow spiders to the Marshall Plan. Sometimes more unusual tasks, like chasing off a book-eating goat, interrupted Corbin’s duties.

By its first birthday, the bookmobile was a firmly established institution and the library added more bookmobiles to the fleet in 1950, 1958, and a fourth in 1961 to serve Island County on a trial basis. This paved the way for voter approval of the Sno-Isle Regional Library Service in 1962.

Unexpectedly, the 1970s gas crisis spurred innovation. A staff member in a station wagon started delivering to nursing homes, group homes, and senior centers. In July 1974, the library bought a van equipped with a lift and the Community Outreach department was born.

Today, the Outreach department, known as Library on Wheels, continues to take the library on the road, providing equitable library connection for people who may face barriers to library access. Although the original bookmobile vehicle was retired in 1966, two vibrant blue Sprinter vans with green lettering joined the fleet in 2013 as the bookmobile and carthauler. The carthauler’s lift allows staff to wheel a pop-up library into retirement homes for residents to browse, while the bookmobile continues the 75-year tradition of bringing the library experience to communities, programs, and events.

Since 1991, Library on Wheels has promoted early literacy by delivering specially selected boxes of books and storytime programs to thousands of preschoolers in hundreds of licensed childcare centers, Head Starts, and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) classrooms. When staff and cargo vans are not ferrying stories to early readers, they are conveying curated boxes of materials to adult family homes. Books by Mail and home service programs serve individuals who cannot get to a library building because of a long-term disability.

Much has changed in the 75 years since the first bookmobile hit the road. But the shelves are still strategically tilted, and this note from an early bookmobile manual remains true: “Bookmobiling is an adventure — one never knows what the day’s schedule will bring.”